Tag Archives: caterpillar

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(A special thanks to Auntie Ros for her recent endorsement.)

The Summer Solstice was on Wednesday morning at 5.24 am (BST) aka 4.24 am Greenwich Meantime. However, Midsummer’s Day is actually tomorrow, St. John’s Day, making this the magical time of year known as Midsummer’s Eve. According to legend the most dangerous time of Midsummer’s Night is between midnight and sunrise. This is when the most powerful magical beings were said to roam the earth. However, modern time-keeping has created great confusion because true midnight, when the sun is on the exact opposite side of the earth to when it is in daytime at noon, is 12.00 am GMT.

But thanks to British Summer Time true midnight is actually at 1:00 am tonight at Greenwich in England. But, true midnight does not actually occur here in Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, until half-an-hour later because we are a few hundred kilometres to the west. So for us the magical beasts don’t actually have the run of the place until 1.30 am and for the very few hours until sunrise, which is very early in northern Europe. And yes, Midsummer’s Night is actually Midsummer’s Eve’s Night, or more correctly by modern reckoning, Midsummer’s Morning.  And there are some wonderfully magical creatures out there right now, such as this beauty:

   The White Plume Moth is a small moth which appears soon after dark and flies about at the ends of gardens. It looks just like a child’s idea of a fairy and appears to glow in the dark. Also, they are so white their details can only be seen properly in sunlight – your kids will be certain they’re seeing fairies as soon as the sun goes down. So do have a look for these at sunset. And then there is a very similar but much larger creature, the Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli):

   The very best place to see these moths is on meadows along the seashore on warm balmy nights when they hover like small ghosts over the grassland. You can easily approach them. The males are a shiny, silky white and the reason they hover is that they are searching for the yellow and pink females lying in the undergrowth below them. These are quite large and impressive moths and really do seem magical. They can also be found in gardens with unsprayed lawns where their caterpillars feed on dandelion roots.

The magical creature I’m searching for tonight, and have never managed to see in my life, is the moth that this gigantic caterpillar will turn into:

   This is the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) a very large moth which is a stunning pink and yellow colour. It feeds on honeysuckle in hedgerows and other similar plants, and lays its eggs on Rosebay Willowherb, which the extraordinary caterpillar feeds on. I have found several of these little monsters in my garden in the last few years, but have still never managed to see the moth, so tonight I’ll definitely be looking. And if I have any luck I’ll definitely be posting the photo tomorrow. In case you’re wondering about the caterpillar, it does give the species its name, but those are not eyes but in fact eyespots designed to make it look like a larger animal, perhaps a lizard. The actual head is at the very end of the ‘trunk’ and is a typical caterpillar-type head.

An all too Spring-like Winter… so far

Unfortunately the first post of this new year must be a sad one – I have just learned that one of Wicklow’s best known naturalists, Stan Moore, passed away on the last day of 2016 after an illness. Stan wrote the column Nature’s Corner in the North Wicklow Times for many years. He had an all-encompassing interest in nature, was a brilliant artist and produced lovely oil paintings, photographs and videos of the natural world. The first time I met him he came to my house with an illustration of a fish he had found, and needed to look at some of my books to positively identify it as it was a strange one. A few years later I recorded him being interviewed by a journalist for a programme which was aired by the Greystones Community Radio Project, and if I can dig that out I’ll put it on the blog. Sadly I did not take up photography until later, so I have no photo of the naturalist. Rest in Peace Stan!

This January is very different to last year – instead of the incredible wet weather caused when Ireland was struck full force by last year’s severe El Nino event  we have had long dry spells, and some of them have been quite balmy. This had apparently caused the vegetation to get very self-assured, and as early as the 9th of December I saw my first daffodil leaves breaking the surface of the soil, and now many of them are well above ground and soon to bloom:

Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.
Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.

And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:

The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord's-and-Ladies.
The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord’s-and-Ladies.

And today I spotted dozens of Alexanders which had broken through the ground and come up all leafy along a roadside verge – Alexanders normally don’t appear until February at the earliest:

32193439185_c03ec74e9d_z   However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:

Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.
Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.

So the question is, are we getting an extremely early spring? Can the plants predict, or are they just reacting to the immediate circumstances. The short answer to that question is that I don’t know. Last year’s freak wet weather, followed by this year’s very dry weather could have thrown the natural world off-kilter, but plants have had millions of years to evolve an ability to predict and behave accordingly, so perhaps the smart money should be on an early spring. But I have seen all of these plants struck by sudden cold spells before, and killed, and the only plants I have seen in my garden which never appear until the winter has finished its work are a certain group of wild (feral) Early Crocuses. Until I see them I’m not convinced the weather is definitely on the up. However, in the meantime the amount of wildlife to be seen is growing. A few days ago I spotted a male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) on a wall by a window light. It was actually more brownish than it appears in the photo, but the camera flash had a strange effect on the colouration:

The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.
The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.

There are also caterpillars of spring and summer moths to be found at this time of year, most having hatched from their eggs in late autumn. They eat and sleep all winter. Here is a handsome green Angle Shades caterpillar, and two smaller Large Yellow Underwing moths, all of which will get much larger before becoming moths:

All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.
All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.

Because the nights are so long keeping birds asleep, and there are few other invertebrate predators around in winter, slugs can be often seen in huge numbers on warm dark winter nights. Some of them can be very handsome. Here, for example, is a medium-sized species known as the Dusky Slug (Arion subfuscus):

A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.
A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.

And this distinctive species is a relatively recent arrival, the Budapest Keeled Slug (Tandonia budapestensis), which was first identified in the British Isles in the 1920s, probably carried in on plants:

Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.
Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.

Slugs might not be to your taste, but if not then there are still quite a few bumblebees to be seen feeding on winter-flowering garden plants such as Mahonia and Vinca. Here is one I saw today, with noticeably full pollen sacs on its legs, a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):

A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.
A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.

Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!

The End of Autumn

We’re now in the final days of true autumn, or if you prefer it, halfway through the Celtic winter. But even now there are leaf buds swelling on the trees in anticipation of the coming spring. Of course, the buds always form at this time of year, and earlier, slowly swelling over the winter months. But some interesting plants usually associated with spring have already become apparent – check out these primroses:

Primroses are known to break through the soil as early as November, but they do remind us that although it's very cold the spring is not all that far away. But we'll need to see them blooming first.
Primroses are known to break through the soil as early as November, but they do remind us that although it’s very cold the spring is not all that far away. But we’ll need to see them blooming first.

Wild primroses (Primula vulgaris) are extremely common in Wicklow, especially at the bases of hedgrows and field walls. They are often the earliest wild flowers to bloom, even if it is snowing they can be blooming beneath the drifts.

A lot of the time in autumn and winter we don’t notice the wildlife that’s around, not because there is none but because the nights are far longer than the days and it’s cold and the low sun makes seeing things much more difficult.

This Angle Shades caterpillar was walking along an insect-screen. They get much bigger than this as the winter moves along.
This Angle Shades caterpillar was walking along an insect-screen. They get much bigger than this as the winter moves along.

There are actually many caterpillars to be found over-wintering, usually curled up in leaf-litter or feeding close to the ground, especially look out for this one, the caterpllar of the Angles Shades moth which doesn’t pupate until springtime. The moth emerges in late spring or summer.

There’s only one week from today until the Winter Solstice, which occurs at 11.03 in the evening GMT (which is our local time), making the next day, Monday, the first day of true winter, and the sunrise the beginning of the ancient New Year.